This essay is an edited extract from Kim's forthcoming book, Animal Dharma.
Being vegan is more than just adopting an optional, non-animal dependent, cruelty-free, material lifestyle. It is more than just the food we chose to eat, the clothes we wear and the things we fill our homes and lives with. Yes, as vegans, we should be proud that our cruelty-free lifestyle is not dependent upon animal exploitation. Estimate the number of animals you have not consumed since you stopped eating meat, eggs and dairy. Be proud of the number of animal lives you saved and your contribution toward creating a peaceful and compassionate world. For many years this was — and still is — my approach to being a vegan. I am a cruelty-free consumer. I am a vegelical. I promote veganism and animal rights whenever I can for the animals, the planet and our own well-being. But my thoughts and feelings about being vegan evolve, as I know they do for many. My challenge is to understand how my veganism changes and the impact it makes on my animal advocacy practice.
I am not saying you have to be religious to be vegan. Nor am I saying being vegan is belonging to a religion, although vegelicals often come across with a missionary zeal. Thankfully, Donald Watson, the founder of the Vegan Society of the UK in 1944, is not being acclaimed as a god of a new church espousing vegan spirituality. My inner grumpy vegan being ensures that anything which boils with the fervour of born again sentiment, including animal advocacy, is met with scepticism and disdain. Zealous vegelicalism of my past has evolved into sniffy vegelicalism of my present.
What I am trying to say is that my relationship to being vegan is different from when I first gave up all animal products. I feel there is something more about being vegan which is a progression from its material lifestyle aspects. Age and experience, and their attendant rewards of insight and wisdom, are making an impact on my understanding of what being vegan means. I am no longer willing to describe myself simply as a material vegan. But I do not consider myself to be a spiritual vegan either. So, what type of vegan am I?
Is there room in the house for a more-than-material-but-not-quite-spiritual-grumpy-vegan?
My spiritual connection with veganism is with Buddhism and Engaged Buddhism. So, my spiritual approach to being vegan is material or, rather, my material vegan lifestyle is influenced by the spiritual message of Buddhism. Can I please be a secular-non-practicing-Buddhist-spiritual-grumpy-vegan?
This is why I find myself writing about the Way of Vegan, which is inspired by my learning about the Way of the Buddha. So, being vegan today is more than the material veganism of my past. But it has not become a spiritual practice either. My material cruelty-free vegan lifestyle is now influenced by my understanding and interpretation of the practical ethics within the practice of Buddhism. I want to keep one foot in the material vegan world and reach over with my other foot to touch with my toe a new world, the secular, ethical Buddhist vegan world. This is important to me today because I wish to infuse my life with my key values of truth, compassion, nonviolence and interbeing. It is not because I want an enlightened spirituality tomorrow.
The Way of the Buddha is the Middle Path taught by the Buddha to develop equally compassion (karuna) and wisdom (panna). The Middle Path inspires, in part, my commitment to achieving the moral and legal rights for animals by balancing the utopian vision of animal rights with the pragmatic politics of animal welfare. Buddhism inspires my animal advocacy practice because it offers important insight into understanding suffering. All suffering is my concern but it is how we treat animals that I particularly care about. We have already seen how the animal industrial complex is responsible for the exploitation of billions of animals annually. We are, of course, complicit with this exploitation because it is our consumerism which drives the consumption of animals that the animal industrial complex provides. Ourselves and the animal industrial complex are to blame for animal exploitation. But there is more to understand about animal exploitation than this view of it as a market place phenomena, with all its attendant issues of the alternative vegan lifestyle and animal advocacy.
The deeper understanding I sought about why we treat animals the way we do inspired me to read books about Buddhism, which lead me to also discover Engaged Buddhism, the application of Buddhism to the advancement of social justice. It was intriguing to learn, for example, the Buddha asked, What is suffering? What causes it? Is it possible to stop suffering? And, if so, how do we prevent suffering from occurring?
Issues surrounding suffering, not only experienced by humans and animals but also by myself as someone who spends a lot of time in melancholic thought, are something that I think about most of the time. I was impressed with how the Buddha answered these fundamentally important questions about the nature of suffering.
Buddhism and Engaged Buddhism offered me new insight into why we treat animals the way we do. And what can be done about it. I discovered it is possible to combine together what I learnt as an animal advocate with what I read in Buddhist ethics to form a new enlightened strategy to achieving moral and legal rights for animals. This influenced how my Animal Dharma came into being. This is why I chose truth, compassion, nonviolence and interbeing as my four key values. The foundations for my Animal Dharma are my social justice political advocacy combined with Buddhist ethics.
The Buddha taught about suffering in the Four Noble Truths.
The First Noble Truth is to acknowledge suffering as an integral part of the nature of life. The sorrows and joys we experience; life’s imperfections, frustrations and dissatisfactions; and the seeming impermanence of life, which is often in conflict with our attachment to things — they all contribute toward producing the suffering we experience.
The Second Noble Truth is to understand suffering as desires which occur like a “thirst” that accompanies all our emotions and thoughts. First, we acknowledge suffering’s existence and then we recognise our actions result in suffering for our selves and others.
The Third Noble Truth is to understand that suffering can be only stopped when we quench the thirst for desires, things and attachments. Buddhists call this perfected state Nirvana. Suffering can be prevented and stopped if we become more aware of ourselves and our actions.
The Fourth Noble Truth is the Middle Path which leads to realisation of Nirvana. It is insufficient to simply understand the Four Noble Truths. Nirvana can be attained only with effort. True selflessness and altruistic behaviour will help to prevent suffering and promote justice.
So, we can acknowledge suffering as something which is real in our lives; that suffering comes from our desires; that it is possible to end suffering; and there is a right way to extinguish suffering. These are the Four Noble Truths as taught by the Buddha, who also taught that the way to extinguish suffering is by following the Noble Eightfold Path, which describes how to live ethically, thereby redressing the in-balance we experience in the world.
The Buddha taught the Noble Eightfold Path as the way to extinguish suffering. It describes how to live ethically, thereby redressing the in-balance we experience in the world. I have adapted the traditional descriptions of the Noble Eightfold Path to include specific references to the practice of animal advocacy.
- Right Understanding. Study the Four Noble Truths to deepen your understanding of the nature of suffering. Apply this insight to address our complex relationship with animals. Recognise the existence of suffering, comprehend its origin and understand how to end it. Make the magical connection. Learn and understand. Think and solve. Imagine an honest, compassionate, peaceful society and your place within it.
- Right Thought. Recognise selfish and violent thinking. Reject these negative thoughts as they lack truth, compassion and prevent interbeing. Nurture positive and altruistic thinking. Discard selfish, negative and violent thoughts, including hatred, misanthropy, martyrdom, violence. Cultivate selfless, positive and nonviolent thoughts toward extending the magical connection and compassion to all beings. Think your vision.
- Right Speech. Do not lie, foster hatred, foment violence and feed alienation. Speak the truth to inspire compassion, nonviolence and interbeing. Do not speak selfishly, negatively or encourage violence. Do not speak maliciously about animal advocates, organisations and the movement. Speak positively and constructively. Be a leader in your thoughts and words as they will foster compassion for everyone. Speak your vision.
- Right Action. Do not destroy life. Cease other negative behaviours. Live by positive example. Inspire others to lead honest, compassionate and peaceful lives. Be a vegan but understand that thoughts and feelings also destroy life. Be a leader in your actions as they will foster universal love and compassion for all beings. Act your vision.
- Right Livelihood. Develop a lifestyle that is ethically right for you which not only makes a positive contribution to society but also makes the least impact on animals and the planet. Live by a profession that is honourable, blameless and innocent of harm to others. It is vital that volunteers and employees of organisations act professionally, responsibly and honourably. Encourage compassionately those who profit from animal cruelty and exploitation to understand their actions. Inspire them to change. Let your vision be your work wherever you are employed.
- Right Effort. Be positive, creative and altruistic. Be steadfast in your altruistic commitment to animal rights to not only free them from our subjugation but also to bring about benefits for our selves and the planet. Learn how to develop your practice of vegan, cruelty-free living to include the cultivation of a loving and compassionate mind. Let your vision be your motivator.
- Right Mindfulness. Work diligently. Be mindful of your relationships with others. Lead by example with your practice of animal advocacy. Be mindful of the body and to not abuse it. Be ever conscious of one’s thoughts and feelings so that they are loving and compassionate. Be ever vigilant in cultivating a loving and compassionate heart and mind. Be mindful of keeping your vision.
- Right Concentration. Be disciplined but not self-reproaching. Be honest, compassionate, nonviolent and embrace interbeing. Imagine those animals who we cruelly treat and place them in your thoughts and give them refuge in your heart. Always concentrate on your vision.